Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, All Y'all. Searching for Santa, redux

This story was published in 1994 in the N and O. Merry Christmas to all!
Searching for Santa
© Susan Byrum Rountree

OK, I admit it: I am 37 years old and I still believe in Santa Claus. That fact is an embarrassment to my husband and even my children, who are borderline themselves this year, but who will pretend to believe, just to please me.
I keep a picture of the Real Santa on my desk all year long. Next to the Christmas Story in the Bible, The Polar Express is my favorite holiday book. And on Christmas morning, though I have recently conceded that the kids can go downstairs first, I always wake up wondering if this will be the year he’ll visit me again.
I don’t really know what happened, way back when I was 11 and one of my friends told me her version of The Truth. With three older brothers, she knew all the truths of life and was quick to squelch my naiveté, with stories about the tooth fairy who lived in a little tooth hut in the woods between our houses, or the giant who had once stepped in her front yard and then across the street at the cemetery, and left two giant-sized footsteps that later turned into ponds.
Let’s just say when she told me that Santa was nothing more than a myth, I wasn’t buying so quickly.
My mother was ironing when I came home that fateful day that could have changed my life. I will never forget the warmth of her kitchen, how she pressed the wrinkles out of one of my father’s shirts, and how I knew she would press out this particular truth for me. “Santa Claus is who you want him to be,” my mother said, neither validating my friend’s confession, nor my insistence of his reality. “You know in your heart what you believe.” It was the perfect dodge, one I would learn to appreciate more when my own children came along, but words that confirmed for me that though the magic stops for some people, it didn’t have to stop for me.
Truth is, my mother probably still believed then, just a little bit, herself.
Why else would she have driven us almost three hours to Richmond, Virginia, once even dodging a James River flood, to see the old elf? There were dozens of Santas along the way, any one of whom would have been glad to hear our wishes. But somehow, none was like the Real Santa.
The Real Santa
When you mention The Real Santa to any kid from six to 56 who grew up in Eastern North Carolina, they know all about him. True, he lives at the North Pole most of the year, but come November, he moves south to Richmond. Sequestered on the top floor of the old downtown Thalheimers department store in Richmond, he sits for hours from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, just like all the other mall Santas, taking requests, chuckling, talking about Rudolf and the gang, even going up to the roof byway of the chimney.
But ask those same kids why the Real Santa was different, why today they join some 45,000 others who drag their own kids extreme distances and withstand hours of waiting in line, just to sit on his lap, and they’ll be quick to respond. The real Santa is different, because he knows your name.
I should know; it happened to me every time I visited him. Just before it was my turn, the Snow Queen, a beautiful fairy-like girl in a long flowing gown, greeted me. Then, in a moment of absolute magic, Santa turned to me and said, “Why it’s Susan, all the way from Scotland Neck. It’s good to see you again. It’s been a long time.”
No mall Santa has that power, and believe me, I’ve searched. They may look the part, but it’s always hello little fella, or why you’re a pretty little gal. And it’s always tell me where you’re from. The Real Santa knew your name and your hometown as well as he knew your wishes, some before you knew yourself.
How does he do it? No True Believer will ever divulge the secret, except to say that he is The Real Santa, and he is magic. 
I’ve thought of Santa many times in the years since my friend stopped believing. Throughout my childhood, he granted most of my wishes; the ballerina bride doll, was the first one I remember. And forgetting to tell him about that blue plastic tea set didn’t mean he didn’t bring all 50 pieces anyway. He gave me my first typewriter, proof to me that someone somewhere believed in my 10-year-old dream of being a writer. (If you’ve seen the movie The Santa Clause, this won’t seem original, but the only thing I ever wanted that Santa didn’t bring me, really, was a Mystery Date Game. And I would have been willing to go out with Poindexter.)
A few years ago, my friend Grace asked my kids and me to tag along with her family on their annual trip to Richmond. She grew up on his lap, too, and I suspect for her, the magic hadn’t ended either, simply with growing up.
I hadn’t seen The Real Santa in almost 30 years, and while I was excited, I was reluctant to return to the scene of my childhood fantasy. Would he be the same? Would he remember me? Would my belief in him be shattered for good?
But there we were, huddled among the mass of people waiting in line for as turn in his gold and velvet chair. With the first glimpse of his balding pink head, it was like seeing a cherished friend after a lifetime of being apart.  I could see that, though he’d gotten older, he hadn’t really changed.
As my children approached the Snow Queen, my heart began to pound until those 30 years had slipped away and I was five again, waiting for my own visit on Santa’s lap. He turned his rosy cheeks toward my daughter and son, who looked a tiny bit frightened at first, until he spoke. “Why, it’s Meredith and Graham. How are things in Raleigh?” he said, and the bond was made, their belief — and mine — in someone they can’t always see, firmly intact.  Even my husband, the family cynic, was scratching his head in wonder.
This year, my sister is coming home for Christmas, all the way from Iowa. She hasn’t seen Santa since she was a child, so guess where we’ll be on Friday? But my sister and I won’t be the only ones making the trip to Richmond this year. We’re bringing children and husbands, my brother’s family, my parents, even a mother-in-law. Never mind that there are more adults than kids. Or that my son’s the only one of the kids who truly still believes anymore.
I’m not worried. The Real Santa is magic. And after a visit with him, we’ll just see who’s first one up to find what’s under the Christmas tree.